By Chris Harris
Arsenal were top at Christmas, but they've been knocked off their perch before the turkey has gone cold.
A goalless draw at Portsmouth, coupled with Manchester United's crushing win at Sunderland, leaves Arsene Wenger's side one point behind the champions at the halfway point of the Premier League season.
Tomas Rosicky went closest to breaking the deadlock. The Czech international tested David James with a long-range curler in the first half, shot wide after a swerving run in the second half and missed the best chance of the game in the last minute of stoppage time after good approach play from substitute Nicklas Bendtner. Benjani provided Pompey's most dangerous moments but a draw was probably a fair result.
This was not a night to remember but perspective is needed. Arsenal's tally of 44 points from 19 games has exceeded expectations this season. If they can maintain that standard in the second half of the campaign, the pre-season title outsiders will be there or thereabouts in May.
Before the game Wenger suggested he would not risk Robin van Persie's thigh strain and so it proved. The Frenchman named the same XI which started against Tottenham on Saturday but opted for rotation among the substitutes with Abou Diaby, Lassana Diarra and Alex Song joining derby hero Bendtner on the bench.
There were some familiar faces in the Pompey side with Kanu, Sol Campbell and Lauren starting against their former club. Indeed, the home team fielded three regulars from the 'Invincibles' side compared to just one - Kolo Toure - in the Gunners line-up. Strange indeed.
Arsenal handed out a 5-1 beating to Pompey in the FA Cup here a few years ago but, generally, games between these teams at Fratton Park have been tight encounters. Tonight's meeting followed the rule, not the exception. It was no great surprise - Pompey had failed to score in six hours of Premier League football at Fratton Park and both sides fielded a lone striker for much of the game. It made for a rather dull affair, particularly in the first half.
It might have been a different story had the six-foot-plus Emmanuel Adebayor met Emmanuel Eboue's drilled cross into the box after just 42 seconds. Instead it was the diminutive Cesc Fabregas in the centre-forward position - and the ball merely skimmed off his head.
Eboue created that chance with a driving run into the box and he was at the heart of Arsenal's best early efforts. The Ivorian played a neat one-two with Adebayor after five minutes but his first-time effort whistled well over the bar. Nine minutes later he at least warmed the palms of James with a low shot from the edge of the box.
At the other end Kanu played Benjani through but his cut-back eluded Sulley Muntari. But neither side had got into their stride and Arsenal's most creative players - Fabregas, Alex Hleb and Rosicky - were struggling to get into the game.
Nico Kranjcar showed good footwork to create a shooting chance from 20 yards after 27 minutes but his fizzing effort flew a yard wide of Almunia's left-hand post with the Spaniard at full stretch. Then Rosicky cut inside and curled a sumptuous effort towards the top corner. James timed his leap to perfection to pluck the ball from the air.
It was difficult to see where a goal was coming from but the game opened up slightly after the break.
Benjani fired the first salvo of the second half, beating Clichy on the outside and testing Almunia at his near post with a rasping drive. But Arsenal pressed forward and, until the hour mark, set up camp in the Pompey half.
Half-chances came and went. Bacary Sagna burst into the box but his cross, directed towards Adebayor, was diverted behind for a corner. Toure picked up the pieces when the corner was delivered and went down under Richard Hughes' challenge. Steve Bennett waved the penalty claims away. Then Hleb raced past Campbell on the left and reached the byline with Adebayor screaming for a cut-back and Fabregas calling for a far-post cross. Both were denied as Hleb's delivery sliced out of play.
Rosicky was making the difference, exerting more influence on the game after swapping positions with Hleb. But it wasn't one-way traffic. Pompey had their moments too.
Kanu lashed high and wide just after the hour mark and Almunia had to race out of his goal to clear as Benjani homed in a few minutes later. The same striker leapt to meet a left-wing cross with 24 minutes left but his downward header lacked power. Then Kranjcar turned Sagna inside out on the left and fired in low shot which bobbled up off the turf. Almunia did well to hold on.
Wenger replaced Eboue with Diaby and then Hleb with Bendtner but Rosicky looked the most likely, swivelling past Lauren on the left-hand side of the box before poking a left-foot shot wide of James' near post. At the other end Benjani raced clear and knocked the ball past Almunia, but Clichy raced back to clear the danger as the Pompey striker looked to apply the finishing touch.
William Gallas, who has popped up with some vital late goals for Arsenal this season, almost did the trick again two minutes from time. He collected Fabregas' low pass six yards out with Campbell in close attention. The captain's spin was excellent but his shot skewed just over the bar.
Then, with seconds remaining, Rosicky spurned a great chance to snatch the points. Fabregas found Bendtner inside the box. He chested the ball down, turned past his marker and poked the ball towards Rosicky. The Czech star met it first-time but his right-foot shot flew inches wide with James beaten. It summed up the game - not bad, but not good enough.
Referee: Steve Bennett
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.